FROM THE MAGICIAN AND THE MAID OF BEAUTY
By N.C. WYETH
And so at last the days grow longer. The additional hours of darkness this autumn passed have been physically telling for me, which would be unusual for this four-season guy until you consider what's been going on: The cyber Pearl Harbor of an election and the collective Nothing To See Here, Move On yawn of our so-called leaders in response. And Sylvester Stallone won't even get to be Minister of Arts for Cheeto Jesus. N'y at-il pas de justice?
It was an unusual autumn in another respect: the virtual absence of the usual reports of deer hunters' rifles echoing through our valley.§
This is because there aren't any hardly any deer.
While I respect the right of people to shoot game for food -- and there are too many people hereabouts who live deep in the woods, barely scrape by and must supplement their meager diets with wild game -- the vast majority of hunters with their expensive sighted rifles, lavish Cabela's kit and immense over-accessorised pickup trucks are in it for the thrill of the kill, and that I don't respect.
Deer hunting is a linchpin of the tourist industry and so popular that schools and government offices still close on the opening day of the fall rifle season (there also are bow and flintlock seasons), but this year all hunters could do was stand around in their spanking clean international orange garb and brag about whose pickup truck had more chrome before retiring early to the nearest bar for rounds of beers and shots. There simply are no more bucks to be slaughtered to speak of, while the doe season was severely limited so that population could be replenished and in a few seasons the bang-bang carnage can begin anew.
"Our" doe hasn't reappeared yet, but we have to assume that she is okay.
This beautiful lady, who is unusually blond for a white tail (Odocoileus virginianus) has been coming out of the deep undergrowth on the mountainside behind our retreat for the past few years in the late spring to show off her foals (two this year) to us and graze at the foot of the yard on our wildflowers before slipping away to hide during hunting season. She returns after the New Year when bow season is over and we put out cracked corn and a salt lick for her when there is substantial snow cover.
In times of great stress -- like now, for example, we turn to music to sooth the soul.
And so we have tix or are lining up tix for these artists/groups in the next few weeks: Rusted Root, Ben Folds, Ladysmith Black Mambazzo, Wayne Shorter with Weather Report & Beyond Reimagined, Joey Alexander, Stanley Clark and Ron Carter, and the Alvin Alley American Dance Theater. Oh, and that unpatriotic Hamilton on Broadway.
My dear friend Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés lives in the Colorado Rockies. She has written:
"This is a great night and day: Winter solstice; the time when the light comes back more and more for longer and longer glancing across Planet Earth to us, the Fire Star, that is, the sun, comes back to us.
"In our family the old people would put on their galoshes over their butchkors and bring in fresh and oh so cold water from the well pump outdoors and we would feast on something yellow, orange and/or red, the colors of the sun! most often the banana peppers, the lantern peppers and the cayenne hot hot hot peppers we’d canned in late summer and put up in shining glass Mason jars on the rough sawn boards in the dark cellar. Consume warmth to bring warmth was their backwoods homeopathy.
The coming year will be a special one for Dr. E: She is editing the 25th anniversary edition of her seminal Women Who Run With The Wolves."You too, drink clean and eat fresh today, warmth to bring warmth . . . as here, winter is still deeply upon us. Yet . . . the sun, our sun, comes . . . "
Woman or man, if you want to get back in touch with the real world -- please give this fine book a read. There may be no worthier and more important goal in 2017 than reconnecting with what really matters.
(SEMI-PLOT SPOILER ALERT. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.)
I have long been a sucker for novel-within-the-novel books because of a fascination with alternate realities. In this respect, Philip K. Dick's sci-fi classic The Man in the High Castle is superlative. And Amazon Prime's eponymous miniseries is even better.
Set in 1962, some 15 years after an alternative ending to world War II, the novel and miniseries on which it is based center on intrigues between the victorious Axis powers, who have divvied up the U.S., with Japan ruling the West and Nazi Germany the East, with a neutral zone in between, as well as the grinding routine of daily life under the resulting totalitarian regimes.
The novel within the novel is an alternate history within an alternate history in which the Allies defeat the Axis, although in a manner different from the narrative drummed into us. The novel in the book is just that, while it is a series of newsreels in the Amazon series.
I would heartily recommend both the book, which while flawed still is a terrific read, and Amazon miniseries, which is superbly cast and photographed. A second season of the miniseries has just debuted, and events of recent weeks have added a certain unwelcome pungency to it. Wonder why that is?
It is fitting in a grotesque sort of way that the big story in the wake of the Through the Looking Glass Election of 2016 is not the outcome changing hacking of Democratic Party assets by Russian intelligence services backed by a legion of fake news providers with Donald Trump's "victory" being a mere footnote, but the other way around: Trump "won" an election he actually lost by nearly 3 million votes and the mere footnote is that he "won" because of the Kremlin pogrom to deny Hillary Clinton the presidency, which he unashamedly supported, while the White House and U.S. spy agencies dawdled, the FBI meddled and the news media and fake news enablers like Facebook and Twitter snoozed.
You would have scoffed had you been told before the November 8 cataclysm that Trump would be the next president because of a sinister Commie cyber plot that read like a bad sci-fi movie, but that is exactly what has happened.
There will not be a national redo, and even the recounts in three states that Clinton lost by less than a percentage point will not alter the outcome, while the stain on the American system of electing its leaders, not to mention American democracy itself, will be indelible.
And that's just for starters.
As unprecedented as this madness would seem to be, there is an historic antecedent -- the 9/11 attacks -- only this time the homeland attacked itself despite again having ample warning as it did on that September morn 15 years ago.
Despite government malfeasance before, during and after the terror attacks that lapsed into outright criminality, we were told to buck up and move on although report after report whitewashed the Bush administration's culpability, there was a crackdown on civil liberties in the name of fighting Al Qaeda, and war was declared against Iraq that would take many tens of thousands of lives, provoke an immense refugee crisis and further destabilize the region although Saddam Hussein was a mortal enemy of Al Qaeda and had nothing to do with 9/11.
We also were told to buck up and move on when:
* The Reagan administration secretly sent weapons to Iran, a state sponsor of terrorism, in 1985 as part of the Iran-Contra scheme. Reagan couldn't be impeached, we were told, because America was still getting over Nixon and Watergate although only a few years later Bill Clinton would be impeached for a blowjob.
* The Supreme Court in 2000 jumped the extra-constitutional shark and meddled in a presidential election, ruling that the winner was George Bush, who "won" because the Republican-controlled election apparatus in Florida was as fixed as the high court majority turned out to be.
* The very moral foundations of our democracy were subverted by a secret post-9/11 program of dark-site prisons and the use of Nazi torture techniques no matter if the victims weren't terrorists, which they often were not. This yielded no valid intelligence but did tank America's standing abroad.
Is it merely a coincidence that all of these outrages were perpetrated by Republicans?
Nope, and that leads me to note one of more noteworthy if sadder aspects of the time in which we live: Barack Obama has been much too nice a guy in the face of eight years of unrelenting Republican mendacity and has been much too slow to move on investigating stolen election claims. No matter, because his look-at-the-brighter-side style of governance will soon be that of an ancien régime.
And yet again, we are being told to buck up and move on as a kleptocrat for whom character assassination by tweet is as reflexive as eating French fries, is on the verge of becoming the first chief executive to juggle the responsibilities of being leader of the free world with being executive director of a reality television show and leveraging the presidency to expand his family business.
All the while, Trump is revving up to sell out his base in restocking the swamp he promised to drain with a HUD pick who doesn't believe in discrimination, an HHS pick who wants to kill Obamacare and gut Medicare, a Commerce pick who is a fraudster billionaire, a Labor pick who believes in depressing wages and opposes paid sick leave, an EPA pick who denies climate change, an Energy pick who once wanted to abolish the department, an Education pick who despises public schools, a Secretary of State pick who is a fellow apologist for Vladimir Putin, an Attorney General pick who is a racist, deeply hostile to immigrants and wants to turn back the clock on marijuana decriminalization, and a White House security chief who traffics in right-wing conspiracy theories.
How do we know that the CIA is right about the Kremlin's pogrom to deny Clinton the presidency?
Because Trump, who has more Russian connections than St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square has towers, is denying it so vehemently as the first crisis of the many his rump presidency will encounter looms large -- a clash between he and leaders of his own party over his fondness for a monster who exerts an increasingly autocratic grip on the former Soviet Union and with his election replaces the American president as the most powerful man in the world, and his solicitousness toward Russian foreign policy interests, including an oft-repeated promise that as president he would not necessarily abide by the U.S.'s long-standing commitment to go to the aid of a NATO nation in the Baltics if it were attacked by Russia.
So many outrages, so little time.
Under other circumstances, it would be heartening that Republican leaders are joining Democrats in calling for a bipartisan probe into the election being thrown to Cheeto Jesus by Russia, which put Democratic organizations and operatives under a more sustained and determined assault, according to the CIA, and while Republican organizations were targeted, it sat on those emails.
But any investigation that might skate too close to the truth, which necessarily includes the backstory to the thousands of innocuous Clinton emails so vigilantly outted by FBI Director James Comey a mere 10 days before the election, will be neutered and probably would have been even if the president-elect was not a lump of clay that Putin looks forward to molding to his own specifications.
And so America, it's time to buck up yet again and move on.
Does anyone know if people in other countries fight over Christmas like Americans do? No, I didn't think so.
For one thing, these countries tend to be more . . . uh, mature than the U.S. and don't get as uppity over religious correctness, let alone whether one group or another is trying to kill the celebration of the birth of the Christ Child, which is a favorite right-wing meme despite the fact that Christmas is a pagan holiday. Or clogging the courts with frivolous lawsuits such as those by creche-contrary atheist groups over displaying Nativity scenes in public spaces.
Then there are Seinfeld fans who want space reserved for a Festivus pole, Flying Spaghetti Monster devotees who spoof creationists, and the truly hard-core who want to erect "Santa Claus Will Take You To Hell" signs.
We can blame that false news trailblazer, Bill O'Reilly, for contemporary War on Christmas convulsions. It was 10 years ago that the Fox News commentator opened an early December show with a segment called "Christmas Under Siege" during which he claimed that all kinds of stuff was being banned that wasn't and asserted that the "secular progressive agenda" included legalizing drugs, euthanasia and gay marriage. Oh, and by the way, Santa Claus always had to be a white guy.
What I do think is needed is a war on bad Christmas songs, and I would start with an abomination called "Christmas Shoes." You know the song: A poor kid saves his allowance to buy his terminally ill mother a pair of shoes so she'll look nice for Jesus if she packs in on Christmas. I'll take Handel's "Messiah" any day.
While we're declaring war on Christmas stuff, how about poorly made toys?
You haven't lived until you are confronted with a Some Assembly Required task in the wee hours of Christmas morning, my own particular hell being filing metal burrs from every nut on my young daughter's first two-wheel bike in an unheated workshop in the first hours of a below-zero wind chill blizzard.
So much for good will toward men.
It has been nearly a month since election cataclysm. In that time, there have been tsunamis of recriminations and mea culpas, fleeting apologies from the mainstream media, deep embarrassment on the part of more honest pundits (myself included), ample evidence that the Democratic Party has its collective head up its ass, fledgling ballot recount efforts and pushbacks all playing out like so much background music, or perhaps the screeching of a discordant string section, coming from Trump Tower, which figuratively and literally is the new seat of American power.
Yet all of this tacking and yawing, hemming and hawing and kicking and screaming fails to reveal the answer to the question of the moment; hell, the question of the millennium: How could Donald Trump have won?
The answer to this question will reveal all:
How could 46 million people vote for a man who has never done an honest thing in his life? Who is an unashamed racist, nativist, misogynist and narcissist who built his fortune on the back of poor working stiffs and a cult of celebrity, has no patience or understanding of the nuances of domestic and foreign policy, and all that aside is a vile and pathetically borish boy-man incapable of growth, comprehension or compassion?Your answer is?
Seventy years ago on Christmas eve, George Bailey was at the end of his rope and was about to jump off a bridge in Bedford Falls, New York. So began the beginning of the end of It’s A Wonderful Life, a movie that I never tire of seeing this time of year.
Even when I was at my most cynical, It’s A Wonderful Life was never simplistic, a label that feckless critics pasted on the Frank Capra-directed film upon its 1946 debut. On one very lonely Christmas Eve, it helped me through a long night, while with every passing year its message continues to humble and inspire me.That message reverberates even more strongly today given the horrors that seem to visit our lives with such numbing regularity: Each of us, no matter how insignificant we may seem, has the power to make a difference. And that the true measure of our humanity has nothing to do with fame or money, but with how we live our life.If it’s been a while since you’ve seen It’s A Wonderful Life, check your TV listings or webstream it from Netflix. If you’ve never seen it, you owe it to yourself to do so.Oh, and have yourself a happy holiday.
|DAMON WINTER / THE NEW YORK TIMES|
It occurred to me . . . that it had not been by accident that the people with whom I had preferred to spend time in high school had, on the whole, hung out in gas stations. ~ JOAN DIDION
I've struggled -- okay, not a lot, but enough -- to find a common theme in the blog posts I have selected as representative of the breadth and depth of Kiko's House over the past 11 years. That theme, I suppose, is that the world has very much departed from the narratives to which we have always been accustomed, the ones we were nurtured on as youngsters, were reinforced in our textbooks when we were students, later still by politicians and other supposedly smart people when we were all grown up, and we comfortingly took to our graves. Until the world began spinning off its axis.
We stopped blowing our horn about milestones at Kiko's House a few years ago. For one thing, it was a tad narcissistic considering that some current affairs blogs have more visitors before breakfast on a slow day than we've had in our entire lifetime. And while history has a really annoying way of repeating itself, there also has been a certain redundancy to many of our posts.
All that noted, November 2016 is a milestone. We're now not only 11 years young, but we've passed the 2 million visitor mark. Those visitors hail from 200 or so countries, including Milwaukee. And there have been over 10,000 posts. This is number 10,609, to be exact.
Visitors seldom leave comments, although there have been conspicuous exceptions. A post on the epidemic of cancers in American golden retrievers has received over 200 comments -- an extraordinary number for a smallish blog. This post has, completely by accident, become a Wailing Wall for people who have lost their beloved dogs to cancer and have reached out to share their experiences. And an instance where blogging can make a small but important difference in people's lives.
Kiko's House has been photograph oriented from the jump, and we've run over 800 standalone images from photographers the world over in addition to images embedded in posts. But the photo above shot by Damon Winter of The New York Times in Chester, Pennsylvania a month before the 2008 presidential election rises above the rest because it is such a striking visual metaphor for Barack Obama's travails -- and America's, as well -- an all too frequent topic here that lurched into warp drive during the year as the axis spinning accelerated with the ascendancy of Cheeto Jesus.
I would also like to point out that we're still being fed the same old narratives despite the ice cold national shower we took on Election Day. And like Joan Didion, the people I preferred to spend time with in high school hung out at gas stations.
-- Love and Peace, SHAUN
CRIME & PUNISHMENT: A TALE OF TWO CITIES (September 28, 2006) Earlier this week, Cashae Corley, a five year old riding in her mother's car in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, became the 287th murder victim of 2006 in Philadelphia. Eighty miles to the north, a homeless man in the Bronx became New York City's 409th murder victim. That's one murder for every 5,200 residents in Philadelphia, a city of 1.5 million people, and one murder for every 19,000 residents in New York, a city of 8.1 million. This means that you're about four times more likely to end up in the morgue in the City of Brotherly Love than the Big Apple. Why?
N.J. HOSPITALS CRISIS: CULLEN WAS NOT THE PROBLEM, HE WAS A SYMPTOM (October 28, 2008) Charles Cullen is every hospital's worst nightmare: A deranged nurse who methodically murders patients by giving them hard-to-detect overdoses of medications. Cullen, who was arrested in 2004 after a 16-year crime spree made considerably easier because a severe nursing shortage enabled him to go undetected as he moved from hospital to hospital, told authorities that he murdered as many as 45 patients at hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
THE SAGA OF THE CEDARS: WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD CONSERVATIVES (January 5, 2010) Harvey and Harriet Cedars are not just the breadwinners in a typical conservative Christian Republican family. They're hard working middle-class folks who have been going through some very hard times but were confident that their president, his government and the Supreme Court that he has molded over the last seven years were on their side, which is to say God's side. This has been good enough for the Cedars because they knew that God was on their side -- their God anyway. Then things got all crazy.
WOULD JESUS HAVE TORTURED? (September 29, 2010) The smell of autumn is in the air on this Sunday morning, that intoxicating aroma of decaying leaves, ripe apples and bedewed grass brilliantly illuminated by the sun in a cloudless azure blue sky. But there is another smell as well and it is not so sweet – the smell of hypocrisy as the faithful file into a conservative Christian church.
WHY THE AMERICAN DREAM IS DEAD (March 28, 2011) Sadly -- and for me bitterly -- the American Dream is not merely on vacation because of a return to difficult economic times. It is dead. And while it is fashionable to blame feckless politicians and greed mongers for its demise, we all share responsibility as we take ever less responsible for our country, as well as ourselves.
11 YEARS AFTER THE 9/11 ATTACKS, THE GREATEST U.S. COVER-UP REMAINS INTACT (September 11, 2012) Eleven years after the 9/11 catastrophe, the Bush administration cover-up of why the terrorist attacks were carried out despite the White House, CIA and FBI being repeatedly warned of them still holds. Not only has the final word not come out about this malfeasance of enormous and arguably criminal proportions, hardly any word about it has.
THE TRUE STORY OF THE MOST POWERFUL MEN IN AMERICA & A GANG RAPE (February 19, 2014) This is the story of how the three most powerful men in America were responsible for the gang rape of a 14-year-old girl, who was burned to a blackened char, and the murder of her parents and sister. The enablers of these heinous crimes were President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who conspired to invade Iraq for bogus reasons, then starved the Army of the men and materiel to get the job done, which led to a lengthy occupation that triggered an Al Qaeda insurgency and a protracted civil war.
'I WAKE UP TO THE SOUND OF MUSIC SPEAKING WORDS OF WISDOM, LET IT BE' (April 4, 2014) Many years on, I look back on a life in which music has been a nearly constant companion. But until recently, as relatively well read as I am on music, musicians and even a little music theory, I never considered my own role -- the role of listener. Why does music feel so good to me? Why do I feel so much?
FIVE YEARS ON: WHY THE PALIN BIRTH HOAX STORY STILL SHOULDN'T GO AWAY (May 28, 2014) Rumors, innuendo and inconclusive photographs do not a true story make, but the fact of the matter is that five-plus years after the birth of Trig Paxson Van Palin, there is no proof that Sarah Palin is his biological mother and evidence he may be her grandson.
POLITIX UPDATE: WHEN THINGS FELL SERIOUSLY APART & THE CENTER DIDN'T HOLD (September 8, 2015) We'll motor past how the brilliant Yeats, as prescient as he could be, foresaw this political season and the coming of Donald Trump nearly 100 years ago in his classic dirge for the decline of civilization, but today even the best in the overcrowded Republican field seem to lack all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity, and surely some revelation is at hand. Or so we should fear.
WHEN GOOD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE: HOW TINY ELDRED BEAT GIANT NESTLE (June 9, 2016) We live in the age of the corporatocracy, and it is a strange time indeed. Corporations have gifted us an astonishing array of goods, but also have been agents for great harm. Often more powerful than the governments who are supposed to regulate them, corporations rule our lives in subtle but extraordinarily manipulative ways. While they can make our lives better, they also are able to destroy them.
IMAGE CREDITS: (CRIME) JIM MacMILLAN/PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS; (9/11) NATIONAL PARK SERVICE; (MUSIC) "THREE MUSICIANS" By PABLO PICASSO; (TRUMP) DONKEY HOTEY; (ELDRED) ALYSSA MEADOWS
My travail d'amour has sold steadily, if not spectacularly (beer money, really), including not a few purchases by parents who told me that There's A House gave their kids the insight they needed to
finally understand Mom and Dad, who had come of age in the Sixties and Seventies.
Wrote one such dad:
"The book's beauty is that it is a composite, a cross cut, an intense study of the doings the exploits the escapades the shenanigans the labor and the passions of a bruised and battered generation outraged by its government and traumatized by its war; the time of the quest for a new definition of freedom: freedom from and from to 'be me,' set against the backdrop of the drug culture which the author's true-life characters immerse themselves in with a hedonistic if not joyful abandon while remaining fully functional and creatively, responsibly and industriously providing for their own upkeep along the way.
"To those who are old enough to appreciate those times, please read this book. You'll be glad that you did. To those of you who are too young to appreciate those times, please read this book. You'll be glad that you did."
There's a House is available for purchase online in dead tree and Kindle editions.
Once again, Your Faithful Reviewer plowed through a slew of books in the course of 2016 with an emphasis on the cosmic (getting lost in the stars) and profane (Thomas Wolfe's earthbound novels). Here are the best 25 of the bunch.
All are great holiday gifts for a literary inclined spouse, other family member or friend. All but one are available online in paperback. If your local lending library is a member of Interlibrary Loan, you can borrow a copy through that system for the price of a little bit of shoe leather.
So no excuses, okay?
THE ACCIDENTAL CITY: Improvising New Orleans (Lawrence N. Powell, 2012) New Orleans was not supposed to exist, let alone exist where it has existed for the last three centuries — in a mosquito-infested swamp on the banks of a difficult-to-tame river — and that is the premise of this delightful book on the first century of the Crescent City and its Creole roots. Remnants of the original NOLA can be seen in the orthogonal grid of the French Market, but that only begins to explain the city’s extraordinary racial, ethnic and cultural diversity. Powell does the rest in this meticulous historical tour de force.
BACK TO LIFE: A Bladder Cancer Journey (Frank Sadowski, 2015) Most commonly, cancer survivors want to forget the entire awful experience, which a few devote much of their lives to counseling those with the disease as Sadowski had done. And in his case, write a brutally candid and profoundly inspiring book about looking death in the face and then staring it down. But what really shines through this eloquent memoir of his ordeal is his indomitable will to live. He simply never gave up. Sadowski writes beautifully, imparting Back to Life with a plain-spoken passion and self-deprecating humor. (Click HERE for a full review.)
BARBARIAN DAYS: A Surfing Life (William Flanagan, 2015) Write well and knowledgeably, and any subject can be made interesting. So it is with surfing, a lifelong passion for journalist and war correspondent Flanagan, who shares his adventures chasing waves all over the world -- including California, Hawaii, the South Pacific, Australia, Africa, Madeira and, surprisingly, metropolitan New York -- in this is elegantly but simply written autobiography, social history, scientific exploration and literary road movie. Read Barbarian Days and you'll never look at an ocean wave the same way again.
BORN TO RUN (Bruce Springsteen, 2016) The 500-plus pages of this autobio are lovingly rendered. Informative. Passionate. Mercifully hot air free. Funny. Immodest. Painfully candid. Insightful. Neurosis ridden. Deep. Oh, and The Boss can really write, even if it is in Jerseyspeak. His description of how he wrote his first bona fide hit single -- "Born to Run" -- is worth the price of admission for veteran musicians and especially up and comers. And answers the question of how the hell you get from Freehold, New Jersey with a $69 Kent guitar to superstardom. Hint: It takes 50 years. Talent. And proving it all night. (Click HERE for a related article.)
THE BURN PITS: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers (Joseph Hickman, 2016 ) Vice President Biden's profound grief over the 2015 death of his eldest son has taken on an awful new dimension: It is possible that Biden unknowingly signed his death warrant. In this shocking book, investigative journalist Hickman asserts that a subsidiary of Halliburton, where Dick Cheney was CEO before he became vice president, poisoned thousands of American soldiers and many thousands more Iraqis with the toxic smoke from the burn pits they operated in place of the incinerators typically run by the military. (Click HERE for a related article.)
BUSH (Jean Edward Smith, 2016) Historians have been picking through the entrails of the Bush presidency since well before he left office. Even allowing that they tend to be a liberal lot, it is difficult to find anyone who has anything remotely positive to say about Bush and his administration, and Smith is absolutely scathing in his condemnation. "For eight years," he writes, "Bush made the decisions that put the United States on a collision course with reality. . . . [His] refusal to face up to the fact that Iraq had no unconventional weapons suggests a willfulness that borders on psychosis." (Click HERE for a related article.)
THE CHINA COLLECTORS: America’s Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures (Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac, 2015) Who has not admired an exquisite porcelain Oriental vase or splendid bronze? This is the backstory to our love affair with Chinese and Japanese art and the eclectic collectors — ranging from Salem sea captains to Indian Jones types to Gilded Age millionaires — who bequeathed North American museums with the greatest collections outside of East Asia. The authors do not shrink from the dark side: Much of the art was plundered, and China in particular wants to reclaim its missing patrimony.
COMING OF AGE IN THE MILKY WAY (Timothy Ferris, 1988) Physician-philosopher Lewis Thomas wrote "The greatest of all accomplishments of twentieth-century science has been the discovery of human ignorance." That is the dramatically huge takeaway from Ferris’s landmark tour de force on how mankind got lost in the stars, which while somewhat outdated nearly 30 years after publication, remains a preeminent example of how the mists obscuring the understanding of a complex science like astronomy from knuckle-headed laymen like myself can be parted through brilliant narrative writing.
ENGLISH PASSENGERS: A Novel (Robert Kneale, 2000) It is 1857 and Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley and his band of smugglers from the Isle of Man have just had their cargo of tobacco and brandy confiscated by British Customs. Just when it seems like things can't get any worse, he is approached by an eccentric English vicar who offers to charter his ship for a journey to the other side of the globe and Tasmania, where the reverend believes the Garden of Eden to be. Beyond Kneale's historical renderings, which include deft descriptions of the brutality of British imperialism and Aboriginal life, this is an uproariously funny book.
THE GREAT JAZZ DAY (Charles Graham et. al., 2000) This is a book about a photograph. Not just any photograph, but the greatest jazz photograph in history — Art Kane’s immortal 1958 shot of nearly 60 jazz greats — ranging from Art Blakey to Coleman Hawkins to Marian McPartland to Sonny Rollins — gathered on the steps of a Harlem brownstone. This selection is a little unusual for me because it is a coffee table book, although a modest one, and is sadly out of print, although used copies are available. There also are some terrific essays by participants in the photo shoot.
H IS FOR HAWK (Helen Macdonald, 2014) My fascination with goshawks led me to this genre-breaking runaway bestseller. It is the story of how the author adopted, raised and trained a gossie whom she improbably named Mabel because, as superstition drenched hawkers believe, the more banal the name the better the bird will be. A big reason for the book's success is that it is as much a story of Macdonald going to pieces -- and very nearly succumbing to madness -- following the death of her beloved father. H Is for Hawk is nothing less than a soaring triumph. (Click HERE for a full review.)
LONELY HEARTS OF THE COSMOS: The Scientific Quest For The Secret of the Universe (Dennis Overbye, 1991) Fortunately for me, this terrific tale is short on mind-locking theory and long on fascinating portraits of the brilliant and typically eccentric men and (too few) women who built on Einstein and began to unlock the answers to The Biggest Question of Them All in the latter half of the 20th century. Although Lonely Hearts is 25 years out of date and there have been enormous strides in the science of wormholes, superstrings and grand unification theories, it remains a great read.
LOOK HOMEWARD: A Life of Thomas Wolfe (David Herbert Donald, 1987) Wolfe, the great American novelist and playwright, churned out an awful lot of bad prose, but that matters not because so much of his work is "extraordinarily brilliant and moving," in Donald’s estimation, and mine as well. Nevertheless, there may never have been a writer who was more his own worst enemy. Donald, who had full access to Wolfe's papers, deftly explains how his massive passions, which complimented his massive physical size, kept colliding with his quest to push the boundaries of the modern novel, which was cut short by his premature death at age 38.
LUCKY JIM (Kingsley Amis, 1954) My appreciation of English humor of the Wodehouse-Waugh school has diminished over the years, probably in parallel with my realization that the English can be classist bores. Nevertheless, this story of Jim Dixon, a hapless lecturer in medieval history at a provincial university, as opposed to Oxford or Cambridge, has its moments. The stuffy bores who live the cloistered lives of academia can be pretty funny, Dixon's relationship with a drip who strings him along has its moments, and I certainly can relate to his hatred of phoniness.
MINOR CHARACTERS (Joyce Johnson, 1983) I would like to say that Johnson and other woman friends and lovers of Beats like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and William S. Burroughs had important roles in making these famous iconoclasts who they were, but Johnson has the good sense to not go there, because for the most part the Beats treated women like crap. Minor Characters chronicles Johnson’s years with Kerouac, beginning a few months before his seminal On The Road was published, and I kept asking myself how she could keep on loving the bum. I guess you had to have been there. (Click HERE for a related article.)
MR NICE: An Autobiography (Howard Marks, 2003) How you feel about a book I found to be a compelling and often delightful read may depend on whether you believe marijuana and hashish are relatively harmless recreational drugs or should be classified with cocaine and heroin, which are anything but harmless. And whether you support the U.S. War on Drugs or see it for what it is: An enormous waste of money that demonizes, criminalizes and incarcerates harmless people like Marks, denying them of their most fundamental constitutional rights. You have been warned.
ON THE MOVE: A Life (Oliver Sachs, 2015) When he was 12, a perceptive schoolmaster wrote, "Sachs will go far, if he does not go too far." Indeed, the British neurologist naturalist and author, who spent his professional life in the U.S., never slowed down until his death last year at age 82. He is widely known for writing best-selling case histories about his patients' disorders. Less well known are his youthful obsession with motorcycles and speed, as well as drugs. On the Move is engaging, but has a thrown-together feel, and there is too little about his signal accomplishment: illuminating the ways that the brain makes us human.
PETER PAN MUST DIE: A Novel (John Verdon, 2014) Former NYPD homicide detective Dave Gurney is an ingenious puzzle solver, but unraveling who fatally wounded a charismatic politician felled by a rifle bullet to the brain while delivering the eulogy at his own mother's funeral, triggering a bizarre murder spree, is his most challenging case yet. With methodical precision, Gurney identifies and then lures and traps the psychopath behind the crime wave by setting himself up as the next target in this exquisitely paced whodunit, Verdon's best so far despite a little too much psychobabble for my taste.
PURITY: A Novel (Jonathan Franzen, 2015) This is the great Franzen's most intimate and least self conscious book yet, and his best. Pip Tyler, whose real name is Purity, is the heroine of this novel of idealism, fidelity and (yes) murder, with all of the characters, in their own way, seeking purity in their lives. Franzen has fashioned a typically sprawling and ambitious plot, with innumerable subplots chockablock with the 21st century Dickensian twists. His musings on the dark underbelly of our cyber society are profound ("The Internet had come to signify death for him"). And the ending is just about perfect.
RAGTIME: A Novel (E.L. Doctorow, 1974) It is fitting that I finally got around to reading this evocation of the dreams and prejudices of pre-World War I America in the era of Black Lives Matter and during a presidential election year. Although Ragtime is chockablock with luminaries like Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, Pierpont Morgan and anarchist Emma Goldman, it is the humbling story of a suburban upper-class New York family whose lives are dramatically changed by a Jewish immigrant and a black man’s fight for racial justice that makes this book so deserving as a classic of American literature.
A ROYAL EXPERIMENT: The Private Life of George III (Janice Hadlow, 2014) This engrossing book was titled The Strangest Family when first published in the UK, which seems misleading until you consider that the monarchs who preceded and followed George were royally dysfunctional while he, by comparison, was rather down to earth, at least until dementia overtook him toward the end of his eventful 60-year reign. Hadlow explores George's efforts to do better in raising his many children (he failed miserably) while rejecting the caricature of him as a tyrant responsible for the failures of British imperialism.
A SHORT HISTORY ABOUT A SMALL PLACE (T.R. Pearson, 1985) You won't find Neely, North Carolina on any map, but this fictional town's characters -- as described in a resolutely deadpan voice by young narrator Louis Benfield -- impart a wisdom that their simple surface selves do not betray. Therein lies the beauty of this nicely written take on small-town Southern culture, which while witty is unsparing when it comes to the realities of class and race prejudice. And while A Small Place may not be the great American novel some critics claim it to be, it's is danged good.
A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING (Bill Bryson, 2003) If Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is Greek to you, and it has been to me despite years of trying to penetrate its meaning, then Bryson will unlock these mysteries and many more about what made the universe and our little old primordial selves in this drop-dead delightful — and by now classic — brick of a book. Bryson manages the neat trick of being profound and funny at the same time in decoding everything from quantum mechanics to the genetics of the fruit fly while rendering the scientists who solved these puzzles in delightfully human terms.
THE SON (2014) and MIDNIGHT SUN (2015) Jo Nesbø, one of the leading practitioners of Arctic Noir, is best known for his 10-book Harry Hole series (of which The Snowman is a personal favorite). But in The Son and Midnight Sun, he turns away from a homicide detective-centric plot. A junkie in prison for crimes he didn't commit and a kind-hearted hit man on the run are the unlikely heroes in these short but compelling reads. Nesbø remains a master of the deeply complex psychological thriller, and separating the good guys from the bad is just part of what makes these books terrific additions to the genre.
YOU CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN (Thomas Wolfe, 1940) This deep and beautifully written classic of 20th century fiction weaves the stories of George Webber, an aspiring young writer aching for fame and love in all the wrong places, with the saga of America and Europe from the Great Depression through the pre-World War II years. Wolfe's last great work (posthumously if controversially assembled by his editor) is a searing critique of capitalism and fascism, but although you indeed can't go home again — that is relive the past — Wolfe expresses through Webber, who of course is himself, an optimism and hope for the future.
Meanwhile, here are my holiday gift giving lists for 2015, 2014 and 2013, as well as a 2012 post on the books that have most influenced me over the years and a random list of great war books published through 2009.